Thursday, March 10, 2011

Process & Storytelling

One of the cool things about my gallery show in Rome was that the people at the Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica were very interested in showing my artistic process. While preparing for the trip, I hoped this would be the case, so in addition to packing the original finished art from my Rotarian stories, I also grabbed up as much of the layouts and sketches as I could find.

Generally speaking, I consider most of these preliminary sketches as garbage, and more often than not, that's where they end up; in the trash. The funny thing is, that usually it is the first, rough thumbnail sketches that I like the most! They are deliberately drawn on bits of xerox paper or flimsy tracing paper. To me, the fact that they are disposable provides freedom to be creative. I don't...CAN'T get attached to my drawings at this stage, and as a result, these comps often have a liveliness that can be difficult to maintain in the tighter, finished drawings.

The truth is, that the initial solving of the problems of storytelling, page design and layout, are the parts of the process that are most interesting (and fun) for me. They also comes most naturally.

It was a real pleasure to be able to share some of that process during the exhibition, and I realized that I don't often show that kind of work here on my blog! I think that artists are used to only showing completed work for a couple of reasons. First, we are taught to show only our "best" work in our portfolios. Usually that means finished work, since half-finished work doesn't exactly inspire confidence that you can complete jobs! Secondly, we only promote the finished work because because that's the end product; the final version intended for public viewing. The preliminary and exploratory work is just process, usually for the artist's (and client's) eye's only.

But, what if the "process" is some of your best work? Or, at least, some of your favorite work? The work you may be best at?

I am very proud of my work on the Rotarian stories. The Paul Harris biography, in particular. There were many, many challenges, and I think the end product reads and looks awesome. What could be a very dry, boring subject turned out to be emotional, entertaining, thoughtful and visually rich (if I do say so, myself!). It is certainly some of my finest work to-date.

That said, most of the real challenges were solved in the initial thumbnail stage of my process. It was while working on the thumbnails that I submerged myself in all the interesting research, looking for authentic photo reference from the time periods that spanned Mr. Harris's long life. It was in the thumbnail stage that I had to work out the details of the visual storytelling; how to design the page layouts, how to draw the readers' eyes through the story, where to place the copy, et cetera.

I think this part of comic book creation is the most interesting because STORYTELLING is what comics are all about. I know many amazing artists who draw comic books, who are actually lacking in these fundamental skills. Some can draw about a zillion times better than I can, but they treat each comic book frame as a stand-alone illustration. Beautiful illustrations, to be sure, but their focus is to be admired as single images rather than to serve a larger vision--STORY.

I may never be able to craft my illustrations to be as gorgeous and refined as masters like Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth, Robert McGinnis, Leyendecker, Frazetta or Drew Struzan. These true masters of illustration could tell entire stories--epics--with single images. Guys like that provide me with an endless well of inspiration.

I do believe that I am an excellent storyteller, though...

An open question: Does story trump imagery?

For me, the answer is contextual. A single, powerful image can beat almost anything, in most media, for quick impact. But if we're talking about engaging an audience and making connections, whether it's in a comic book, film, or an advertisement, then I put my money on story for a lasting impression and deeper involvement.

What do you think?

And now, here's some of my process! Below are a few pages from my Rotarian story. First, are my comps; those rough thumbnails thAt I enjoy so much. Then you can see the pencil, ink & color stages...those individual steps that many comic book fans may already be familiar with...

This spread is my favorite of the story. I loved drawing Victorian-era Chicago, the people and all the details.


This next spread--like most of my work--is all about using diagonals to draw the reader's eye across the page. Another favorite of mine. The last panel makes me grin...




Next is a favorite of most people familiar with the story--the "map" spread.
This was a fun storytelling device that crammed a lot of information into a small space. Much of the detail was added digitally...





While we're "behind the scenes" here, I'll also share this; I am extremely picky about where the narrative captions, word balloons and other type is placed on my artwork. Very often, these decisions are made by the editorial & production teams, or by the letterer or designer. Luckily, with this story, my editor Deborah Lawrence indulged my nit-picking, citing me as the "expert!" Sometimes my decisions have to do with simple clarity, sometimes they are purely aesthetic, but mostly I'm concerned with the flow of the storytelling, and using shapes in the artwork and the captions themselves to direct the reader's eye. Below are two examples of where I asked for editorial changes to the balloon & caption placements...




Does that just look crazy to you? Anyway, I know what I want!

Lastly, I'll share some of my process for the magazine cover art, including an unused pencil sketch (I don't have my rough comps for this, anymore)...






Well, I hope that was interesting to you! In my next post, I will reflect a little on my experiences in Rome. Maybe I can find some video from when I was interviewed for Italian TV...

1 comment:

Kevie said...

Thanks for sharing your rough comps. I suppose this is sort of an "artist's artist" thing, but I tend to enjoy looking at roughs more than final art. I love to see the spontaneity of an artist working in the moment. I would have loved to have seen these comps colored up as is, particularly the page of the guy getting off the train. I really admire the confidence in the line. The finals look great though.